Back in the Saddle: How to Stop Nerves Holding You Back

Back in the Saddle: How to Stop Nerves Holding You Back

Got butterflies at the thought of getting back on your horse or competing again? From happy hackers to dressage divas, we’ve all been through a riding confidence crisis. Riding Mindset and Confidence Coach, Jane Brindley, shares her strategies for banishing nerves when you get back in the saddle.

As riders, we can suffer a confidence knock at any time. Especially if we’ve been out of the saddle for a while. Whether you’ve taken a break from hacking during lockdown or feel worried about your first competition of the season, the good news is that confidence naturally ebbs and flows, so — even if you feel nervous now — you can absolutely get back to feeling great about riding again!

Lost your confidence riding? You could be ‘catastrophising’!

“Nerves and worry can affect all riders,” says Jane. “Whether that’s fear about the ‘what-ifs’ and not being able to cope out on a hack, through to tension at competitions due to perfectionism, worry about being judged, comparing yourself to others, or a whole host of other reasons.”

But all of these situations can be resolved, as Jane found out herself.

“I used to be one of those riders who would be tacking up to go for a hack, then hear or see something out on the road like a tractor and would think, “Oh no!” If I go out there ‘something’ will happen that I won’t be able to handle, so I just wouldn’t go. Instead, I’d end up plodding round the field for half an hour and feel fed up. Nothing particularly bad had ever happened to me but I was ‘catastrophising’ and imagining that my ride would end up with the worst possible outcome and therefore be too scared to push myself out of my comfort zone.”

While Jane was never the most confident rider, she decided something had to change. She began training in psychotherapy and hypnosis and applied what she learnt to her own riding, replacing old, negative thought patterns with new, positive ones. For example:

“If I meet a tractor then I will be assertive and ask them to give way,” Jane told herself. “My horse trusts me and listens to me, so he’ll behave accordingly and we’ll deal with whatever situations might arise.”

Jane noticed an enormous change almost immediately, “I was pushing myself more, worrying less, and enjoying everything. I felt great.” This mindset shift was the catalyst for Jane launching her own business, Horse Riding with Confidence Scotland, helping riders of all levels improve their own confidence.

5 horse riding confidence building exercises

Jane works with riders to develop a ‘toolkit’ they can use when their rider confidence takes a tumble. Here are her top five tips for getting your confidence back:

  1. Identify your strengths and challenges
    Jane suggests splitting a piece of paper in two and listing your strengths and challenges. For example, you might have over 20 years’ experience and plenty of patience, but have limited time and feel under pressure to get things done. Once you’ve identified these, focus on your strengths and work through your challenges one by one so you don’t feel overwhelmed.

  2. Set achievable short-term goals
    “By making sure your goals are achievable, your confidence will grow as you tick them off,” says Jane. “It’s also important to make a plan of how you’ll achieve your goals. As you measure your progress, you’ll soon see your confidence returning and that you can do things you feared you may never be able to do again.”

  3. Ask someone experienced to help
    Most rider mindset coaches offer both in-person and remote sessions. These can help you get back on track, but also connect you with someone who can not only empathise with your feelings but offer coping strategies tailored to your personal situation. Having regular lessons with a sympathetic BHS instructor can also help build your confidence.

  4. Remember to breathe
    Jane recommends “calming breathing to settle your hormones, cutting down on negative internal chatter, and remembering that you believe what you tell yourself.”

    One of our favourite techniques for calming nerves is ‘balanced breathing’. Breathe in through your nose as you count to four, then exhale as you count from four down to one. Once you’ve got the hang of it, you can increase the count to six, and then eight. Try it next time you’re in the saddle!

  5. Focus on what you DO want to happen — not on what you DON’T
    “Concentrate on riding forwards in a balanced and controlled manner, rather than focusing on trying to prevent your horse from spooking,” says Jane. When your horse is forward and active, they’ll be less likely to spook because their mental and physical energy is focused on moving forward. When we let our horses plod along, they have lots of time to look out for that ‘monster’ in the hedge or a bird in the distance.

Riding with confidence using the power of positive thoughts

“Think of a time when your ride felt utterly perfect,” suggests Jane. “Use all your senses to remember what you were wearing, how your horse felt, what you could smell and see. Gather all the positive strength from this experience and mentally practise what you want to happen when you ride now. This will help enormously when you are riding for real, as it will be as though you’ve already done it and therefore you will be far more prepared.”